Neither fame nor a way with words could save Mary Wollstonecraft

May 09, 1993|By Laurie Kaplan

VINDICATION.

Frances Sherwood.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

435 pages. $22.

5/8 In the late 18th century -- at the end of the Enlightenment -- "eels were skinned alive and geese bled to death, horses flogged, dogs starved, bears baited, and children wandered the streets maimed for begging, their teeth pulled and hair cut for selling. In London in 1787, there were 166 offenses for which human beings could be hanged."

The masses were hungry, and everyone was dirty. It was a world where little brothers absorbed with their mothers' milk the fact that they were the masters. No laws protected the rights of women. Across the English Channel, Madame Guillotine's "blade was a siren who sang in the night, . . . a vampire who needed fresh blood in order to live." Poverty, disease, prostitution, child and spouse abuse defied the life of the mind.

In "Vindication," a brilliant and disturbing first novel based on the life of the prodigiously talented Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Sherwood creates a quirky, adventurous heroine who hates the conditions she has been assigned -- sexually, intellectually and socially. An outspoken, brutalized child, Mary evolves into a woman obsessed with questions about dignity and happiness, liberty and equality. Through Joseph Johnson, her publisher and friend, Mary meets some of the intellectual luminaries of her time, including William Blake, "who has visions fixed in the crotch of his pants," Tom Paine and William Godwin, her future husband. The most enlightened

men of the century seem a little dotty, but they grapple with a problem that is also on Mary's mind: How could women make worthwhile contributions to a society that gags and silences them?

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is notoriously controversial. Challenging society to think in a new way, she suggested that people -- not just well-born males -- had the power to change their lives. With the publication of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women," Mary became the most famous woman of her time, but she served a grim apprenticeship: She ran a school for girls in London, became a governess, wrote "Thoughts on the Education of Daughters," translated German and French for her publisher, sat for John Opie and slept with the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, landed in Bedlam with melancholia and was chained by one arm to the wall, had a child and was abandoned by an American adventurer, threw herself in the Thames, and died, like so many other women of her time, in childbirth.

In "Vindication," Dr. Sherwood, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, uses recurring images to shape the story into an almost mythical journey away from the confinement of passion and stupidity. For Mary, from the first page of the novel, every day was a dog day. "Keep the animal locked in a cage," her mother whines. "She needs a cage, by God."

The worst day of her childhood -- the day her father hanged his five hunting dogs for disappointing him -- she comes to call the Day of the Dogs. The litany of words imprints on her heart: "hanged them to teach them a lesson, to teach you a lesson. Let that be a lesson to you all. A lesson, do you hear, a lesson."

As "Vindication" illustrates, writing is a revolutionary act. For Mary, the key words of the Enlightenment -- reason and intelligence -- belie the chaos of living and loving. The tragedy is that one of the most intellectual and articulate writers of the late 18th century should die producing her more famous daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

"I am to die here in this room, shut away," she thinks, "the world muffled in wool, William in my study sobbing, his face nose down on the torn and worn leather of my desk, my two girls, Fanny and the baby, taken away, my hair cut, my body naked, my room stripped bare, everything pared down, my life contracting to the size of this room, fit to the measurement of a bed, I who have been to France, Portugal, Sweden and Ireland, and lived in Yorkshire, Wales, Bath, am relegated finally to this small place where I must wait patiently for my inevitable end. They all go on tiptoe shh, shh . . . she's dying. How I want to be disturbed, awakened, kept alive."

"Vindication" is a remarkable evocation of the past and completely absorbs the reader's imagination. Like A. S. Byatt's "Possession" and Susan Sontag's "The Volcano Lover," Frances Sherwood's novel stretches the boundaries of the historical novel. Mixing fact and fiction, dream sequences and contemporary commentary, Dr. Sherwood constructs a meticulously detailed, hauntingly realistic story about how the will to survive and create cannot be shackled by social conventions or whipped into submission.

Dr. Kaplan is an associate professor of English at Goucher College.

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